“I can’t wait to work on my golf game.” This is a fairly common answer to my question, “What would you like to do when you stop working full time?” I understand that work is consuming. In fact, I usually have this conversation with people in their 50’s or early 60’s. At this point in life many people are at the peak of their career, and peak earnings. These peak earnings provide opportunity for aggressive savings into employer sponsored retirement plans as well as paying off mortgages and kids’ student loans and weddings.
Peak Earnings = Peak Stress
At the same time, peak earnings come with peak responsibilities and often, peak stress. You make more money because you solve more problems and take on more headaches. At the beginning of a career, most of the stress comes from learning the job, gaining skills, negotiating the relationships at a workplace. New entrants to the workforce and recent college graduates are primarily managing themselves and most of their stress comes from their own challenges and growth opportunities. These challenges are mostly overcome through individual development, training, learning, coaching and mentoring. Over time, we gain knowledge, skills and abilities and overall competence at our jobs. This often leads to promotion. Promotion is great; it gives us a bigger platform, more influence over our work environment and a bigger paycheck.
Over time, though, I have observed that people get all the pleasure promoted right out of them. The higher we go in an organization the stress shifts away from the personal challenges associated with learning new skills. Managers, directors, and other leaders have plenty of stress, and most of it comes from things they have much less control over. It comes from having responsibility for the work output of tens or hundreds of people. It comes from the board of directors or executives who must answer to investors. It comes from the business environment, the general economy, changes in the industry, new competitors, and compressing margins. Most of the stress on workers late in their career is external and there is little we can do personally to affect or deflect the onslaught of outside pressures.
Responsibility and Control
In his excellent book, Drive, Daniel Pink identifies factors that align with satisfaction in the workplace. People who have more control over the following elements have happier work lives: Task, time and team. Task refers to what you are actually working on. In other words, what are you doing from day to day or hour to hour. One of the most pernicious foes we face in this regard is the ability to share calendars and allow other people to add meetings to our calendars. When Pink refers to time he means having control over when we do the tasks that make up our responsibilities. Once again, shared calendars are real enemies to control over our time. Team means the people we work with. To a certain extent we have some control over our team as we progress in a career, if we have hiring authority. However, almost no one gets to choose her boss, and we often inherit team members we wouldn’t have chosen (or wouldn’t if we knew then what we know now!).
All of these stressors often combine with the biological reality of aging as well as pent up demand for leisure activities which have played second fiddle to work. For many people, by their late 50’s, the idea of managing a golf handicap instead of a school, business unit, or other organization structure sounds very appealing. And it often is a welcome relief. Retiring from a highly demanding job and focusing on yourself, your challenges, and things within your control can be very refreshing. It can be a great reward, hard earned and well deserved.
For a while.
The escape and the Cycle
But after some time, it might not be everything you need. (I am using golf as a proxy for any leisure activity that you might choose to escape to after a long slog in the workplace. It could be scrapbooking, working on cars, gardening, stamp collecting, whatever.) See, when golf serves as a break from work, it is very restorative. It rejuvenates your mind, body, and emotions. It can provide an excellent alternative to the daily grind. But it is also like a camping trip for me: a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
Golf (or any leisure pursuit) might not give you enough challenge to stay interesting. There might not be enough meaning for you to stay satisfied. So, what to do when golf gets boring? We have developed a concept called “the cycle.” What we mean by this is not to get locked into a fixed set of activities. We find that when people cycle through different periods of volunteering, part-time work and leisure pursuits they are often happier in retirement. We encourage our clients to golf, to scrapbook, to fix up their yard and garden. Restore a car and organize the garage. But please give yourself permission to admit if it gets boring. Please recognize that there are seasons in life. And cycles within seasons. Don’t be afraid to go look for a part-time job. It doesn’t mean you have failed at retirement. It means you are healthy!